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maybe it should’ve been a dye-in?

August 24, 2006

(my fabulous blue-haired friend was confused as I described yesterday’s action to her over the phone. She thought I meant some kind of protest where the participants dye their hair in solidarity with…something. Maybe she’s got a good idea?)

Depending on what circles you run in, you may or may not have heard about the die-in that a group of New York Jews staged in front of Penn Station yesterday to protest Israel’s recent actions in Gaza and Lebanon. It was covered by few media outlets: some blogs (notably: a one-line mention on Gothamist, a bit of snarky criticism from Jewlicious, and a post on Jewschool, which got the requisite annoying comments from both sides of this debate, which is very clearly black and white), on some lefty site I’ve never heard of called World War 4 Report, and on nyc Indymedia (both of which just pasted the original press release). You can see the press release, photos, video, and press clips from a similar event held in Boston last month on JewishConscience. Coordinated events were held yesterday in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Philly action was banner drops, and the SF folks chained themselves to the front doors of the Federation building, for which they were arrested. (Not sure about what went on in LA). The rest of this post addresses only the New York action.

(Just to put this issue out and then aside, I have begun to focus most of my energy towards local issues and have made a conscious effort not to be involved in Israel-related activities. I do, however, understand that it’s not really possible to simply turn a blind eye to the goings on in the Middle East just because of some ideology of “here-ness.” Israel exists in my name and in the name of every Jew in the world, and with that in mind, I revisit the issue of what it means to be active around Israel/Palestine issues here in the US. I’m a bit of a hypocrite in that I don’t really have any intention of starting to do anything around this issue – action- or organizing-based, but this particular action was so present in my community that I really feel the need to address it.)

Check out both the photos and the video from yesterday’s action in New York. I think that they are both incredibly powerful images, especially the video – there’s some kind of eery silence that you can sense even over the street traffic that is pretty haunting. I think generally silent protests are all pretty intense in that way. I also appreciated that the giant banners took into account the fact that “officially” the war in Lebanon has been declared over (clearly more complicated than that) and that the message of the protest needed to be tailored appropriately.

While the banner was tailored appropriately, the comments of some of the protestors in the video were less so. Those made it seem like the action was more of an apologetic than anything else, like instead of making concrete suggestions for change it was more like “don’t put me in a box with those other US Jews who support this war!” Which is all fine and dandy for when we sit around with our friends and share opinions and frustrations, but doesn’t really jive so well with an action like this, in my opinion. I think that it serves possibly to teach the general public that there are different kinds of Jews (which is an important message on some level but could definitely be achieved in ways that are less inflammatory) but I think it serves mostly to irritate mainstream Jews and further their opinion that the far-left has absolutely nothing to do with them and that they/we are a crazy bunch of fringe lunatics.

In that sense, I don’t know that personally I would put my name or my weight behind an action like this. If I/we were doing some sustainable activism around this issue, I’d be way more OK with an action like this, because I feel like once we’re organizing and we have smart and nuanced public opinions about it that we express through our work, we “earn the right” to protest in this simple, one-messaged way once in awhile. A lot of US Jews (specifically NY Jews) are opposed to a lot of the policies of the state of Israel, and the way we should deal with that is to harness our power is to organize, work with, and educate mainstream US Jews around this issue, not just be angry and make a lot of noise and ostracize ourselves and our opinions further. I refuse to believe that we have so little in common with mainstream Jews that we can’t organize and educate around this issue. As I look at photos of a meticulously planned action, I wonder what concrete changes on the ground we could all be working on and not just how many protests we have attended.

I’m told that this action was directed specifically at the US government and not at mainstream Jews. I’m also told that this action may serve as a jumping off point to start some sustainable organizing around this issue. My perspective is one of an outsider, a member of the public who read about the action and watched the video. Obviously, participants in such a public protest may always have motives or goals that are less public than the actual action. I’m interested to see what might come as a result of this action.

To put this whole debate of direct action vs. organizing (if I can use that binary for just a moment) into perspective: I’m thinking of groups like Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (The Jewish Alliance for Peace and Justice), whose mission is to “to educate and mobilize American Jews in support of a negotiated two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (from their website), as opposed to groups like Jews Against the Occupation who describe themselves as “an organization of progressive, secular and religious Jews of all ages throughout the New York City area advocating peace through justice for Palestine and Israel” (from their website) and whose mission, far longer and more detailed than that of Brit Tzedek, contains high hopes and dreams, many of which I share, but are, in many ways, completely unrealistic. Their long mission statement is more of a presentation of political opinions than a description of what they actually do. I think it takes a lot more guts to tailor one’s message to meet mainstream Jews in the middle and try to make changes that are within reach than to wax poetic and dream way bigger than reality will allow. I don’t mean this to be a jab at JATO – I just wonder if their mission might be furthered by more long-term organizing and education and fewer protests and actions. Who knows, perhaps the somberness and the shock value of the image of a die-in that the participants were trying to convey may spark some sustainable movement or activities (or perhaps, if it doesn’t mobilize the public, it can mobilize the participants themselves and their supporters, which would also be great). So far, the response that I’ve seen has been less than positive.

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